Fashion after the Revolution

MDW Treasurer Wendy Randolph received the Terrific Treasurer Award for exceptional service during the Wimberley Administration of the TSDAR. Photo Submitted by Jane Busdeker, Corresponding Secretary, MDW Chapter, NSDAR

After the colonies made the break from Great Britain with the Revolutionary War, the new United States of America exerted its independence in several ways in addition to the choice of a federal republic form of government over a monarchy. Three of those ways were in language, beverage choice, and fashion. Noah Webster standardized new simplified spellings of many words such as “color” for “colour,” “jail” for “gaol,” and “plow” for “plough.” The Boston Tea Party brought about a break with the tea monopoly, and Americans began to promote the drinking of coffee, chocolate, and whiskey. Thirdly, the new nation urged the reduction of imported fabrics and promoted the wearing of homespun linen or wool.

Diana West, DAR Museum Correspondent Docent in Training, presented the program, “An Agreeable Tyrant: Fashion after the Revolution,” at the March Zoom meeting of the Martha Dandridge Washington (MDW) Chapter, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR). The presentation focused on the collection of garments and fabric samples on display at the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C. According to West, the museum is the result of the NSDAR founders’ vision in 1890 to have a fireproof building to save historical relics. It is the only decorative arts museum in Washington, D.C., which “collects and displays furniture, paintings, ceramics, textiles, costumes, metals, and other objects that reflect the human experience.”

West noted that the title, “Agreeable Tyrant,” came from an article in a 1783 issue of the Continental Journal. The writer asked, “What is fashion? – An Agreeable Tyrant.,” meaning “consumers are subject to it, yet happy to follow its arbitrary dictates.”

The speaker shared photos of authentic women’s and men’s garments from 1780 to 1825 which both created a “national identity” while still maintaining “international credibility.”

After independence Americans wanted to support American products. Although the fledgling textile industry could not at first supply all needs, the wearing of homespun linen and woolen garments gained popularity and the frequency of wearing imported silk taffeta and brocades diminished. First President George Washington wore a three-piece homespun woolen suit at his first Presidential inauguration in 1789.

We sometimes think that people were much smaller 200 years ago than today. However, Docent West explained that the round gown from the 1780s on her PowerPoint slide was worn by Hannah Chaplin Avery, a lady in her 30s, who was 5’8” tall (taller by 4 inches than the average American woman in 2022). With a 42-inch bust and 40-inch waist, she was not as diminutive as we are sometimes led to believe colonial women were. The dress was modest with long sleeves and a full skirt and the petticoat not visible.

Unlike in Britain where one’s clothes reflected one’s class in society, in America it became harder and harder to distinguish someone’s economic or social standing based merely on the garments he/she wore.

At the turn of the century, dresses featuring “raised waistlines, draped bodices, and slimmed silhouettes” of the 1790s gave way to women’s styles influenced by those of ancient Greece and Rome. To keep up with the changes, garments were often altered as the cost and time invested in new garments was substantial.

Abigail Adams, wife of 2nd U.S. President John Adams and mother of 6th President John Quincy Adams, is known for her prolific correspondence with her beloved husband. She was not hesitant to speak up for women in the infant country where women still had few rights. However, West noted that Adams did not fully approve of the immodesty creeping into fashion. She quoted Adams as saying, that fashionable Philadelphian women “wear their cloaths too scant upon the body and too full upon the Bosom for my fancy,” and that “I wishd that more had been left to the imagination, and less to the Eye.”

Besides the revealing form-fitting style with low necklines, exposed elbows were somewhat shocking to Americans.

Men’s fashions reflected equality as the upper classes adopted trousers, which were formerly worn by laborers and sailors.

From 1800 to 1810, women favored white muslin (woven cotton known as “mull”) with white or colored slips underneath to reduce the tendency of muslin to cling to the body.

After trade embargoes and the War of 1812 ended, Americans slipped back into importing fabrics and garments with bright colors and patterns. However, the American homespun industry soldiered slowly on. Puffy sleeves and wider skirts came into fashion, and the full skirts, eventually augmented by hoops and petticoats, retained their popularity for 50 years.

The Young Lady’s Friend’s Counsel cautioned young women, “We ought to mistrust all extravagant French models, and, by modifying our copies of them, escape being made ridiculous, at the will and pleasure of a Parisian dress-maker.” Good advice even for today.

Even Noah Webster urged using good sense in regard to fashion, “An American ought not to ask what is the custom of London and Paris; but what is becoming our dignity? Instead of this…every fashionable folly is brought from Europe, and adapted without scruple in our dress, our manners, and our conversation.”

Photos of the mentioned garments can be viewed at

Also, at the Zoom meeting, MDW Regent Jane Chambers presented Treasurer Wendy Randolph with the Terrific Treasurer Award from the Tennessee Society, Daughters of the America Revolution (TSDAR). In the award letter, TSDAR State Treasurer Sandra Long stated that the award was for Randolph’s exceptional service as chapter treasurer during the Wimberley Administration. She added, “As chapter treasurer, Ms. Randoph oversees the financial management and reporting of the chapter. She performs all of the accounting functions, including compiling financial statements which enable the chapter to make educated financial decisions. She also files at least six different reports annually and collects national, state, and chapter dues. She plays a vital role in the chapter. She is an unsung hero.”

For information about the DAR, contact Registrar Karen McFarland at (865) 258-8670 or Regent Jane Chambers at (865) 591-3857.